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NASA-funded software aids reliability

Network World Fusion

by Jeff Caruso

(IDG) -- Following in the footsteps of Tang and Teflon, the latest technology to be commercialized from the space program is software that lets network professionals distribute Internet gateway applications such as firewalls across a cluster of processors to boost reliability.

Called the Redundant Array of Independent Nodes, or RAIN, the software was developed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In a late '90s spin on the classic NASA technology transfer story, the RAIN developers this month secured $15 million in venture capital funding to bring the software to enterprise customers.

Led by Caltech professor Shuki Bruck, the RAIN research team in 1998 formed a company called Rainfinity. Rainfinity, located in Mountain View, Calif., is already shipping its first commercial software package derived from the RAIN technology, and company officials plan to release several other Internet-oriented applications.

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"We want to tell the world that we have very credible technology. It's rocket science for the Internet," says Bruck, Rainfinity's chairman. "We also want it known that we have real products and real customers. And now we have the backing of very prominent venture funds."

The RAIN project was started four years ago at Caltech to create an alternative to the expensive, special-purpose computer systems used in space missions. The Caltech researchers wanted to put together a highly reliable and available computer system by distributing processing across many low-cost commercial hardware and software components.

To tie these components together, the researchers created RAIN software, which has three components:

  • A component that stores data across distributed processors and retrieves it even if some of the processors fail.

  • A communications component that creates a redundant network between multiple processors and supports a single, uniform way of connecting to any of the processors.

  • A computing component that automatically recovers and restarts applications if a processor fails.

    The RAIN software was delivered to JPL's Center for Integrated Space Microsystems, where it has been running for several months. "The RAIN system is performing very well," says center director Leon Alkalai. "We are interested in RAIN because we are interested in reliable, distributed systems for space applications. . . . For us, it's a wonderful thing when there's a dual use of a technology that we've funded."

    Alkalai says the RAIN software would be useful on the space station or space shuttle, where astronauts each have their own laptops that could be strung together to behave as a single, reliable system for certain applications.

    "The RAIN software is doing exactly as we expected it to do," Alkalai says. "You can turn off computers and unplug switches, and the system will still be up and running as a connected system."

    After delivering the RAIN software to JPL, Bruck and four of his colleagues secured a patent on it and created Rainfinity to develop commercial applications. Under an agreement with Caltech, Rainfinity has exclusive rights to the RAIN patent and software. In return, Caltech has an equity position in the company.

    "We felt the RAIN technology could have an impact on many different applications in the Internet infrastructure," Bruck says. "People are not willing to tolerate downtime in the Internet. And they want to be able to scale applications. These are some of the same requirements as in space," he says.

    Rainfinity is shipping its first product, Rainwall, which is software that runs on a cluster of PCs or workstations and creates a distributed Internet gateway for hosting applications such as a firewall. When Rainwall detects a hardware or software failure, it automatically shifts traffic to a healthy gateway without disruption of service. Rainwall runs on up to four Windows NT or Solaris systems and supports Check Point Software's FireWall-1.

    Rainwall is used by BellSouth, the Chicago Stock Exchange and Dresdner Bank Group. Rainwall costs $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the number of processors supported.

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